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Battling provinces have much room to improve

By Ruahidri O'Connor

Published 05/01/2016

Held up: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey is thwarted by Munster during the inter-pro clash at the Kingspan
Held up: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey is thwarted by Munster during the inter-pro clash at the Kingspan

The longest season has reached the closest thing to a mid-way point we're going to get. Almost every team has played 11 games in the Guinness PRO12, while four rounds of the Champions Cup have been played by most sides.

Starting with the World Cup and ending with Ireland's three-Test tour of South Africa, the players will have been on the go for 51 weeks when it all comes to an end, but the corner has been turned.

For the Irish provinces, it has been a strange campaign as they coped without their internationals during September and October, dealt with a World Cup hangover in November and are now trying to catch up.

In Europe, Ulster and Munster are still in the hunt - partly due to having away fixtures in France postponed following the terrorist attacks on Paris - Leinster are out and Connacht are going strong in the Challenge Cup.

Amid concerns over the Irish sides losing ground to the big-spending English and French clubs, there is a prettier picture on the home front where the four provinces are in contention in a congested PRO12.

There isn't much room for reflection during a 16 weekends in-a-row run of games, but how have they fared?

Connacht

The season so far: Knowing they would be less affected by the World Cup than any of their rivals, Pat Lam's side needed a strong start and got it. It helped that they were at home for five of their first seven games and as their fixtures have increased in difficulty, the form has dipped. Their increasing injury count hasn't helped, yet they remain third.

Where do they go from here? Having narrowly missed out on Champions Cup qualification last season, Connacht want to go one better, but the congested PRO12 table means their excellent start has guaranteed them nothing and the next two fixtures against leaders Scarlets will go a long way to determining the outcome of their campaign.

The players they need to step up? It's less step up and more get fit. The kids have gone well, but Connacht need to get the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Denis Buckley on to the pitch.

Best case scenario/worse case? Third in the table at the half-way stage, they should be targeting a place in the top four, but there is a general acceptance that a place at Europe's top table next year would represent a fine season. The next few weeks will be vital.

Prediction? Their best route to the Champions Cup could come by winning the Challenge Cup given the tightness of the PRO12 table.

Leinster

The season so far: A tale of two competitions. Leo Cullen's men are out of the equation in Europe after a disastrous pool campaign, but a win over Ospreys in their game in hand this weekend can lift them to the top of the PRO12 table.

Where do they go from here? Europe is a lost cause, so all their eggs go into the PRO12 basket and they are well placed to dominate the league if they can cope without their internationals during the Six Nations. A title would help ease the pain of their continental struggles.

The players they need to step up? Cullen needs more from Jonathan Sexton, while he could also do with Cian Healy hitting form and Zane Kirchner needs to justify Leinster's faith.

Best/worse case scenario? They possess the best squad in the league and should be contending. The title is there to be won. The fear for Leinster must be a serious fall-off in form during the Six Nations. Joe Schmidt is likely to dip deep into his former province's squad, which means they will need their overseas recruits to perform.

Prediction? PRO12 winners.

Munster

The season so far: An initial surge in the PRO12 was followed by a run of five defeats in succession, including back-to-back defeats to Leicester Tigers in Europe and a crisis of confidence. Last week's win over Ulster has stopped the rot.

Where do they go from here? Paris and back-to-back games over Stade Francais which can revive their Champions Cup campaign. Their weekend victory in Belfast has kept them firmly in the hunt in the PRO12 and the fixture list appears to favour them during the run-in.

The players they need to step up? Ian Keatley showed what he is capable of last Saturday and if he can continue on an upward curve in tandem with a run of fitness for Tyler Bleyendaal, things would be looking up.

Best/worst case scenario? A European quarter-final would be a good result, while they are more than capable of securing a home PRO12 semi-final and reaching the final. Conversely, a defeat in France this weekend would end their interest in the Champions Cup, while the loss of their internationals could harm their league ambitions.

Prediction? Exit Europe at the pool stage and a PRO12 semi-final.

Ulster

The season so far: An up and down affair as the province continues a transition into the Les Kiss era. Ireland's best hope of a Champions Cup quarter-final, Ulster have been inconsistent in the PRO12.

Where do they go from here? Back-to-back games with Oyonnax and a return visit to a rampant Saracens side will determine their European fate, while the league fixture list looks kinder than most with four of their 11 remaining games coming against the struggling bottom three.

The players they need to step up? Ulster's foreign corps is stronger than any of their rivals, meaning they can thrive during the Six Nations if Ruan Pienaar, Francois van der Merwe and Nick Williams perform.

Best/worst case scenario? If they can get their league form in order, Ulster are among the teams who can win the PRO12, while an away quarter-final opens up Europe for the northern province, who would be away from home. The Champions Cup could yet go astray, while a place in the top four in the league is far from assured.

Prediction? Squeeze into the last eight in Europe and an away semi-final defeat in the PRO12.

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